Based on the book of the same name, “We Own This City” stars the phenomenal Bernthal as Sgt. Wayne Jenkins, the Henry Hill of this group of gangsters with badges. Bernthal plays Jenkins as more of craven opportunist than a brilliant sociopath. He honestly believes that he’s serving the greater good and so if he takes some cash from a bust or even nabs some drugs or weapons to sell on the side, who’s getting hurt? As he spirals deeper into his brand of narcissistic injustice, he takes greater risks to protect himself, including planting evidence and protecting violent fellow officers. Bernthal is the key to “We Own This City,” capturing this man’s deep insecurity in his shifty eyes—watch the scene in which Jenkins witnesses a Freddie Gray protest getting more intense to see the constant fear in this man’s soul. Bernthal, Simon, Pelecanos, and director Reinaldo Marcus Green (“King Richard”) understand that men like Wayne Jenkins are inherently weak, the kind of people who take advantage of others to protect their self-interests. It’s a riveting performance.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a Simon project without a sprawling ensemble. Other officers on the GTTF that get caught up in the corruption investigation include characters played by McKinley Belcher III, Darrell Britt-Gibson, Rob Brown, and Josh Charles, who’s very effective as the guy on the team who seems the most like he might be serial killer Daniel Hersl. On the other end of the spectrum, there’s Sean Suiter (Jamie Hector), a guy who Simon and Pelecanos clearly have sympathy for as a cop who could have gone in a different direction if the system wasn’t so fundamentally broken. One side of the political spectrum is likely to look at “We Own This City” as anti-cop propaganda, but that would be inaccurate because the show constantly feels like it’s trying to portray how likely it is for things like the GTTF scandal to happen when it becomes easier to do the wrong thing than do the right one. What “We Own This City” really captures is how police corruption doesn’t take a lot of effort—it’s actually harder to do the right thing.
Nicole Steele (Wunmi Mosaku) discovers this as she investigates the case for the Department of Justice. Mosaku is kind of wasted as a character designed primarily to push the narrative—ditto Dagmara Domincyzk as an investigating FBI agent—and I didn’t love the chronological jumble of the narrative. Simon & Pelecanos’ work can be hard enough to follow, and it’s easy to get lost in how far down the rabbit hole Jenkins has gone because of how much the story jumps around in time. Of course, this is intentional, likely because they didn’t want this to feel like one man’s increasing villainy and more of a fabric of non-stop corruption.